ROCHESTER, Minn. -- Roger Cadogan is no stranger to hard work. He has served in the armed forces, worked as a radio DJ, trained marketing professionals, and just before the pandemic hit, frequented large department stores in his job as a retail specialist.
When the 68-year-old realized his underlying health conditions and age put him at a higher risk of suffering severe COVID-19 side effects, he resigned from his part-time job in April 2020. A legal battle decades before gutted much of his lifelong savings, so he relied on two sources to support his monthly expenses: Social Security benefits and unemployment insurance.
Then, one of those lifelines was taken away from him.
Due to Minnesota's Social Security offset provision, the equivalent of 50% of Cadogan’s Social Security payments was deducted from his unemployment benefits. With $1,850 in monthly Social Security funds and about $900 expected from unemployment, Cadogan said the deduction left him with $5 in unemployment checks per month.
That amount was too small to distribute, according to a letter he received about three weeks after he resigned.
“I was just flabbergasted. I couldn't believe what I was reading,” said Cadogan, who had to cut costs significantly as a result, including reducing doses of his medications for a while.
Minnesota is one of the last states that still employ this Social Security offset policy. A confusing set of provisions designate who is hit with the deduction: It applies to those who apply for unemployment insurance after they have collected Social Security payments and worked for a period of less than one year. Under the existing policy, people can be penalized even if they have applied for Social Security but haven’t yet received a payment.
Cadogan, who applied for unemployment insurance just shy of one year after he started to collect Social Security payments, could have easily avoided the penalty if he had inched out the one-year window. Had he applied for Social Security earlier or had he waited just a few months to apply for unemployment benefits, he would have been in the clear.
However, he didn't know that at the time. Forum News Service was the first to explain to Cadogan how frustratingly close he came to circumventing the policy.
“The most difficult thing for me was — why don't they tell us this?” he said.
Fighting for change
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development has not released numbers on how many people this policy affects, but Deputy Commissioner Blake Chaffee estimates the figure is quite small.
Legislators and advocates alike couldn’t say with certainty what spawned the offset policy. Many traced it back to a tale about a wealthy business owner who decades ago retired from his lucrative position, got a part-time job, and began collecting unemployment after he was let go from that position. The hefty unemployment payments supposedly given to this person raised eyebrows for legislators, who pushed for the offset law.
Chaffee couldn't confirm this story, but offered a broader explanation: "Generally speaking, to be eligible for unemployment insurance, you have to be actively seeking work. Historically, when folks have retired, they're no longer actively seeking work." He said the earliest iteration of an offset provision in Minnesota law was 1937.
"It's terrible. These people have been left with nothing, in a pandemic."
- Mary Jo George, AARP Minnesota
Regardless of its origin, the policy has a negative effect on enough seniors that it should be repealed, said Mary Jo George, associate state director of advocacy for AARP Minnesota.
“It's terrible,” she said. “These people have been left with nothing, in a pandemic.”
A group of advocates and legislators have joined forces to attempt to repeal the provision before the end of the session this summer.
Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, who is carrying the legislation in the state Senate, emphasized that the policy is also unjust to employers, who are paying out unemployment insurance for their workers without them getting the full extent of the payments.
“It just all came back to the idea that their employers were paying into the program, they've earned the benefit, and why aren’t we giving them that full benefit?” he said.
Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, has been fighting to change the law for over a decade. When he pushed to repeal it around 2008 — back when 100% of one’s Social Security payments were deducted from unemployment as an offset — he was successful in reducing that to a 50% deduction.
It’s time to make that number zero, he said.
“The conversation becomes more compelling when you look out the window and you know the levels of employment are historic," Davnie said.
A report from the Retirement Equity Lab at the New School found that during the first six months of the pandemic, workers 55 and older were more likely to lose their jobs than younger employees. The report also found that 42% of the 2.9 million older workers who left their jobs decided to retire.
Cadogan is one of them. He fought the offset policy for a while, calling legislators and reaching out to advocates. Eventually, he grew tired of the battle, and tossed his unemployment denial letter he'd been saving in the trash.
He and his partner look forward to a retirement spent outside of Minnesota. After this experience, they’re itching to move away.
“I’ve just had it. I’m tired of fighting these stupid rules,” Cadogan said. “I'm tired of fighting bureaucracy.”